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Matthews sentenced to 25 years in prison for church fires

Posted at 3:04 PM, Nov 02, 2020

A federal judge has sentenced Holden Matthews to 25 years in prison for the three church fires he set in St. Landry Parish.

Matthews pleaded guilty to the fires in both state and federal court.

Today, he was sentenced in federal court. The judge sentenced him to 180 months for three of the charges, with each of those sentences to be served at the same time. He then sentenced him to 120 months for a fourth charge, to be served after the first sentences are served, for a total of 300 months, or 25 years, in prison.

Matthews did get 18 months credit for time he already has served, and the judge asked the Bureau of Prisons to ensure he is placed in a facility near his family, and that he receives substance abuse counseling and mental health treatment. Matthews was also ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $590,246 to St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, $970,213.30 to Greater Union Baptist Church, and $1,100,000 to Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney J. Luke Walker, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana, and Trial Attorney Risa Berkower of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“These churches trace their origins to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and, for generations, were a place for predominantly African American Christians to gather, pray, worship, and celebrate their faith,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The churches survived for nearly 150 years but did not survive this defendant’s warped act of hatred. I extend my sympathy to the victims of this defendant’s arson spree, the congregants of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. The Justice Department will continue vigorously to protect their right to worship and live in peace. The Justice Department stands against these acts of hate and the sentence handed down today reflects that. We will continue to protect the civil right of Americans to freedom of worship without fear of persecution.”

Matthews admitted that, between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to Greater Union, Mt. Pleasant and St. Mary Baptist Churches.

He pleaded guilty in federal court to one count using fire to commit a felony and three counts intentional damage to religious property. The latter charges are what is known as the Church Arson Prevention Act. He faced a minimum of 10 years in prison, and a maximum of 70 years.

In state court, he pleaded guilty to two counts simple arson, one count aggravated arson and three counts of hate crimes. The federal judge said that Matthews may serve his state sentence at the same time as his federal sentence.

At the plea hearing this spring in federal court, Matthews admitted that, between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to three Baptist churches with predominantly African-American congregations in the Opelousas area.

First, on March 26, 2019, Matthews set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. Next, on April 2, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church, in Opelousas. Then, on April 4, 2019, Matthews set fire to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas.

Judge Robert Summerhays stated in court that the fires Matthews set destroyed each of the church buildings. Matthews then admitted to setting the fires because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a “Black Metal” musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s.

Matthews then admitted that, after setting the third fire, he posted photographs and videos on Facebook that showed the first two churches burning.

Matthews admitted in court that he had taken these photographs and videos in real time on his cell phone, as he watched those churches burn, and that he had posted them to Facebook in an effort to promote himself in the Black Metal community. To see some of the evidence against him in the federal case, click here.

Matthews' arrest last summer followed an massive investigation that involved several local, state and federal agencies including the ATF, FBI, St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, St. Landry Parish Fire Department, Louisiana State Fire Marshal, Louisiana Attorney General’s Cybercrime Unit, Louisiana State Police and the Florida State Fire Marshal.

Gov. Edwards issued the following statement on the sentencing of Holden Matthews for the burning of three African American churches in St. Landry Parish in 2019.

"Hate is not a Louisiana value, and decimating three historically African American churches is beyond disturbing,” said Gov. Edwards. “The same would be true of any place of worship. What Holden Matthews confessed to doing has deeply impacted many lives and threatened the sense of security of members of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. I pray he truly understands the depth of the pain he has caused. We are all inspired by the continued strength and resilience of the pastors, congregations and community that pulled together after such terrible losses. Everyone involved in assisting in this case is to be commended for their work and commitment to seeing justice served."